SpaceX: We'll land on Mars in 2018 (cough, with NASA's help)

Red Dragon mission is go

Mars

SpaceX, a rocket upstart known for making bold promises, has announced its intention to send one of its Dragon capsules to Mars in two years.

This won't be a manned mission, as CEO Elon Musk subsequently made clear, pointing out that the Dragon capsule has about as much internal space as an SUV, which would make the nine-month trip impossible for an astronaut. Instead, the trip is being used to test out the Dragon capsule's suitability for space exploration.

He added that, based on current designs, the Dragon capsule could technically land on Venus. It would be a short trip however, since the local environment is so hostile the capsule would only survive a few hours.

Getting to Mars is well understood, but actually landing on the Red Planet successfully is quite a different kettle of fish. The atmosphere is problematic – thin enough to make parachute landings impossible but thick enough to cause serious heating problems as a lander slams into atmospheric particles.

The Dragon capsule comes equipped with eight SuperDraco thrusters capable of putting out 120,000 lbs of axial thrust. That's more than enough to land the capsule safely in Mars' gravity, but slowing down enough for a safe landing might be an issue.

To help with the mission, NASA is lending SpaceX a hand. An agency spokeswoman told The Register that NASA is providing technical support in areas such as entry, descent and landing skills, aeroscience, flight systems engineering, and planetary protection.

That last one is important, since any craft landing on Mars has to be completely sterilized before beginning the mission to avoid contamination. If there is life on Mars, we don't want Earth bacteria killing it and the US government has strict rules about decontamination to avoid interplanetary genocide.

"We're particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current 'no-exchange-of-funds' agreement we have with the company," said NASA's deputy administrator Dava Newman.

"In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm's plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. As the saying goes, 'spaceflight is hard.' Sending astronauts to Mars, which will be one of the greatest feats of human innovation in the history of civilization, carries with it many, many puzzles to piece together."

The other missing piece in SpaceX's plans is the rocket that will get to Mars. In order to make the trip, the company will need to use one of its Falcon Heavy lifters, and the first scheduled flight isn't due until November – and that's after years of delays.

The Falcon Heavy uses 27 Merlin engines to generate five million pounds of thrust and is a much more complex beast than the Falcon 9 rockets SpaceX currently uses. Earlier this month, Musk described the first flight as a "heavy pucker factor" event.

So if SpaceX can put all of the pieces together, a Mars landing is possible, with a little help from NASA. But at least one individual, however, is more sanguine about the plans.

While SpaceX does have a history of over-promising, this Mars mission definitely look like a goer. Based on the orbits of the two planets, the optimum time for the mission to set off would be between May and July of 2018, when the two planets are at their closest points. ®

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